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In Roman Catholicism, a partial remission of temporal punishment due for a sin after the sin has been forgiven through the sacrament of penance. The theology of indulgences is based upon the concept that sin is always evil and that, even though the crime and the eternal punishment are forgiven in the sacrament of penance, divine charity and justice demand that the sinner pay for his crime. The fault and the eternal guilt, once forgiven sacramentally, are wiped away; yet some punishment remains to be satisfied in this life or in purgatory.
The history of indulgences is intimately bound up with the penitential discipline of the early Christian church. The sacrament of penance was frequently referred to as a second and more laborious baptism in which the penitent endeavoured to free himself not only of the guilt of sin but of the temporal punishment as well. To this end fixed penances (canonical) were assigned that were calculated to compensate the debt of punishment contracted by sin. The penitent was not, however, left to his own resources; he was encouraged to enlist the aid of the church, acting in behalf of the whole Christian community. Later, in the early European Middle Ages, there developed procedures to commute the protracted canonical penance by substituting periods of fasting (usually of 40 days, a quarantine), special private prayers, almsgiving, and payments of money that was to be used for religious purposes. The first to grant a plenary, or absolute, indulgence was Pope Urban II on the occasion of the First Crusade (1095). The pertinent section of the indulgence decree reads: "Whosoever out of pure devotion and not for the sake of gaining honour or money, shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, may count that journey in lieu of all penance."
After the 12th century, references to indulgences became more frequent. Innocent II granted a 40-day indulgence for visiting and contributing to the adornment of the great church at Cluny (1132), and soon every church of any importance had its own indulgence to further the work of construction. The evident lack of proportion between the small sums of money contributed and the debt of punishment remitted posed a problem for the great speculative theologians of the age. Their solution fixed the doctrine that was regarded as implicit in contemporary practice. Money contributions and other pious works were not to be considered as substitutes for the canonical penance but rather as conditions for gaining the indulgence. The debt of punishment was paid from the church's treasury.
While the doctrine of indulgences was sound enough, the practice of demanding an offering as a necessary condition for certain indulgences inevitably prepared the way for serious abuses. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe and its older universities, hospitals, bridges, and other social and cultural projects are evidence enough that much of the money collected on the occasion of an indulgence was actually directed toward legitimate purposes; not a little, however, found its way into the pockets of greedy ecclesiastics and professional collectors ( quaestores). And it is at least possible that preachers in their zeal for the church (edifice) of God went beyond the limits of the doctrine, misleading the more credulous into believing that the indulgence was a substitute for true sorrow and confession. It would appear also that the frequently used expression ab omni culpa et poena--"from all guilt and punishment"--contributed to the misconception. Whatever the original significance of this misleading phrase, it is noteworthy that during the rebuilding of the imperial cathedral in Speyer (1451) there was written on the church doors in big letters, "In this place is full pardon of all sins for punishment and guilt."
Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses (q.v.), posted on the door of All Saints Church (Castle Church), Wittenberg, in 1517, were in part a protest against the wayward employment of indulgences and helped spark the Indulgence Controversy. Not until the great reformist Council of Trent (1562), however, was an end put to abuses connected with the practice of indulgences. The name and office of quaestor was abolished and with the office the privileges attached. Five years later, Pius V revoked all indulgences for which money payments or alms were prescribed and ordered the bishops to destroy all briefs in which such indulgences were granted. The Roman Catholic church nevertheless still held to its doctrinal position that the debt of punishment could be paid from the church's treasury. Insisting on this point, the church kept before the minds of the faithful the consoling doctrine of the communion of saints and of that solidarity of all its members in Christ's mystical body, which is basic to the doctrine of indulgences.
In current Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, in order to gain an indulgence the person must be in the state of grace (i.e., he must have no unabsolved mortal sin upon his conscience), he must have the intention of gaining the indulgence, and he must personally fulfil the prescribed good work. Indulgences may be applied to the souls of the dead. In such cases, however, the church cannot grant directly; indulgences can be offered for the dead only per modum suffragii (i.e., in supplication), not per modum absolutionis (i.e., as a grant) -- Copyright 1994-1998 Encyclopaedia Britannica.